I was perplexed. I couldn’t figure out what all the fascination was with self-driving cars. Why all the investment in designing cars that could be operated with little or no hands-on attention by a human driver?
So, I asked a friend what that was all about, and he quickly responded: it’s really about trucks, not cars.
In a country whose system of transporting commodities is insanely organized around highways and trucks (as against, e.g., railroads and trains), and where truck-drivers’ pay is once-again rising (average pay for long-haul truckers jumped 17 percent since the end of 2013, as against the 4-percent increase in average U.S. wages), it makes perfect—profitable—sense to design trucks that can operate without drivers.
Higher costs are driving shippers to reconfigure their supply chains. In August, Whirlpool Corp. opened a distribution center near a railroad spur outside Chicago so the company could load appliances directly from trains, avoiding the need to hire trucks. The amount of goods moved by train is also increasing—but trains can’t deliver to as many locations as trucks, which carry some two-thirds of cargo nationwide.
“Given the fact that the cost of transporting products over the road is rising, it has kind of forced us to rethink our distribution network strategy,” said Jim Keppler, Whirlpool’s vice president of integrated supply chain. “Driver pay is a big part of that.”
Self-driving trucks mean fewer workers (with their wages and benefits), more hours on the road (since robots don’t need to rest), and ultimately more control over driving and delivery (even when truckers are themselves wired these days to eliminate detours, stops, and other departures from more-profitable operation).
Apparently, it’s already legal to drive across Texas and Nevada with nobody at the wheel. . .